Leadership and Dealing With Adversity
As Freddie Mercury once sang, “And bad mistakes, I’ve made a few”. The trick, of course, is not to repeat them. Growing up, my father would often impart his wisdom with me “People won’t always remember the mistakes you made but they will always remember how you handled the impact.” Like any teenager, I didn’t pay much heed to his insight, until of course those words finally resonated when I brought down an international law firm.
It was London in the early ’90s. I had just left my teenage years behind and was trying to kick-start a career in IT as a Computer Operator. As I didn’t get the opportunity to finish school or go to university, I was more than thrilled to be working, particularly in an office and not on a building site where it was expected I would end up. Each morning I would dutifully follow the daily procedures which focused around the company’s core system, a Data General minicomputer. The minicomputer ran the financial and communication systems of the company and stored all the key corporate data. It was the size of a modern-day fridge but only the power of a modern-day wristwatch.
On that ill-fated morning, I went into the computer room to change the back-up reel-to-reel tapes as I had done for days and weeks beforehand. After entering the command to shut-down the tape system I waited for the reel to spin to a stop and then reached down and flicked off the power switch. As usual, everything was going smoothly. Keen to complete my tasks I glanced up at the main console to check the system status. It was blank. It wasn’t supposed to be blank. Comically I remember banging the side of it. It seemed to work in movies. It didn’t work for me. I glanced down to the on/off switch again. There were two of them. The left one was on the mini-computer hard drive which had a sticker ‘DO NOT TOUCH’ in red. The right one was on the tape drive. The tape drive green light was still on. It wasn’t supposed to be. Waves of panic swept through my body.
Quickly and with a sleight of hand, I switched the minicomputer back on. Surely no one would have noticed. I was wrong. The master console jumped back into life…. but not as we know it.
Pages upon pages of “CRITICAL ERROR” and “FATAL SYSTEM CRASH” messages zoomed up the screen. I had obviously caused a major system malfunction. I was very insightful back then! My stomach lurched to the ground as I contemplated the impact this was going to have. No-one will be able to access their documents, financials or email system. It didn’t help that the Partners at the law firm were feared, intimidating and non-forgiving. I weighed up these thoughts for a moment, dreading every second that went past. “Perhaps they won’t figure out it was me” was my closing thought as I walked out of the computer room, I was young, impulsive and by now my confidence was at an all-time low.
I plucked up any courage I had and dialled her office number. At the time I probably would have preferred facing a ferocious scrum on the rugby pitch. The phone rang for what seemed like a lifetime and I was silently hoping it would go to her voicemail. It didn’t. Anne answered in her now familiar formal tone. After a moment of hesitation, I revealed that we had a significant issue and explained what I had done to cause it. I apologised and offered no excuses. It remained quiet on the other side of the phone until Anne asked if there was anything else she should be aware of. I explained the team was now determining the impact and steps required to restore the system and we would know soon how long that would take. Without breaking her formal tone Anne thanked me for calling her personally and also for my honesty. Anne remained calm and provided me with instructions to share with the team in a composed and clear manner. I remember immediately feeling a huge surge apprehension disappear.
Whilst the call with Anne went better than what I had convinced myself it would, my nerves were still on tenterhooks. I could barely look at my colleagues, my embarrassment was at an all-time high. I was by far the youngest in the team and whilst I was eager to make a name for myself, bringing down the entire Law firm with a single flick of a switch wasn’t part of the plan. The helpdesk phone was red hot and the senior lawyers were baying for blood as they couldn’t access their documents or mail system. It was going to be a long day and I certainly wasn’t going to be winning any popularity awards.
After many hours we finally identified a path to get the system back on-line and fully restored. At this point, Anne called me up to her office. This is it I concluded. Derogatory comments and idle threats from the firm’s Partners had already started to fester around the office and it was made clear there was going to be consequences awaiting the ‘person who caused this’. Like a naughty schoolkid going to see the headmaster (I was very used to that!), I made my way up to Anne’s office. By the time I got there, I had convinced myself that she was about to fire me and that the Partners were going to sue me too. They were Lawyers after all.
It was an open and frank conversation with Anne. She was clearly disappointed but she focused on understanding the cause of the problem and probed me so she could fully recognise the actions I had taken that led to it. Not just the physical actions, but also what mindset I was in. Anne didn’t lecture me, or belittle me. She didn’t rant on about the impact and seriousness of the issue. She recognised from my demeanour that I already knew. Whilst the conversation continued the voices in my head kept telling me “and now she is going to fire you” after each point she made. Finally, I couldn’t wait any longer. I thanked her for seeing me privately and that I understood why she was going to fire me. She sat back looking confused.
The reality was that I knew there wasn’t really a choice to make. I immediately told my colleagues about the terrible mistake I had made. Time stood still as they looked at me in disbelief. As our manager wasn’t expected into the office until later that morning and so a senior colleague broke the silence by rushing into the computer room to evaluate the issue for himself. After a few minutes, he returned, not looking too good. “It’s a meltdown” he gasped. Discussing the issue with the other team members he finally concluded that he would need to update the CIO. The CIO at the time was an ex-naval officer who was incredibly formal and she was quite direct in the limited previous interactions I had with her. The senior colleague, now glaring at me made his way to the phone. “This isn’t going to be a pleasant call,” he said, “I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes!” he continued.
Dealing with Adversity
The situation didn’t sit well with me. It was at this point that I made the decision to ‘own the story’ and insisted that I would deliver the news to our CIO. (Years later I would learn the actions I took were key steps on how to deal with adversity from PEAK Learning Adversity Quotient (AQ) CORE model.) I was adamant that I would be the author of my own story and not allow anyone else to potentially embellish the narration with their own opinions, thoughts or actions. It was important to take ownership and be in control.
I don’t recall the exact words she used, but I do remember she actually smiled (a rare thing) and explained how she valued that I had immediately escalated the issue with honesty and took accountability. That action, she explained, enabled the team to focus on the recovery actions and not waste time trying to find the root cause of the problem. She also appreciated that I had told her directly and not hidden behind someone else or behind any excuses. I’m glad she had recognised all that because at that moment I certainly didn’t!
Later that night as we were progressing through the recovery steps and I was doing my best to keep out of everyone’s way Anne came by for a progress update. She called the team together and thanked us all for the effort we were putting in. Unexpectantly she also acknowledged that she had spoken to me at length and that she had accepted my apology. Anne thanked me again for my honesty and she made it clear that I lead the actions to ensure this mistake could never happen again. It was a leadership lesson I hoped I would never forget.
Time past and as I progressed my career I had plenty of opportunities to tune my style and approach in line with the lessons I had learnt from Anne. However, the reality was my exposure to Anne’s leadership style was limited. As I moved onto other roles and organisations I found her measured and coaching approach was more of an anomaly rather than common practice. In a male-dominated environment, particularly in IT and Investment banking, it seemed your strength of leadership was demonstrated by the fear you struck in others. Back then understanding and dealing with mental health wasn’t a topic or a leadership exercise that was ever really discussed. It was banded in with the other ‘soft skills’ that were mocked by the ‘serious’ executives. “You’re not here to make friends” I remember once being told. Shame on us.
However, ten years later I finally relearnt what Anne had exhibited to which, up to that moment, I had failed to fully grasp. I was settling into a new Leadership role for a Treasury division of a major bank in the UK. Late one night I received a call from one of the team members who explained that during a routine update, he had wiped out key software from the trading floor desktops. It was catastrophic.
After debriefing my management team I jumped into my car and raced to the city to oversee the crisis. I remember waves of anger and panic racing through my mind. As a major bank in the UK, the banking ecosystem was dependant on us meeting the regulatory payment cut-off times and failure was not tolerated. My fellow executives took no prisoners when it came to major foul-ups and I had seen plenty of staff being shown the door when they messed up. “Heads will roll” seemed to be a favourite phrase used by peers who had a bias for demonstrating their power.
Thankfully it was a long drive into the city and my mind allowed itself to go back to the crisis I had personally caused some 10 years prior. Anne was considered and calm in her approach and she had demonstrated compassion and understanding that created a great sense of loyalty and motivation for me to always be at my best. She was a Leader I truly admired and someone I had wanted to model myself on. I realised at that point I hadn’t lived up to her standards or the aspirations I had set all those years ago. What I now understand as the techniques and benefits of Mindfulness I was clear that my current mindset wasn’t going to help the situation. I needed to channel my inner Anne.
On arrival, Joe, the team member who had rung me earlier that night, came to meet me. He looked terrible. He immediately apologised and informed me he had identified exactly what he had done (or in this case the steps he missed) that had caused the crisis. Focusing on being calm and considered in my approach we faced into the issue. After many hours we rectified the problem, just in time for morning trading. I called Joe into my office.
By the look on his face, I reasoned that he was also expecting the worst-case scenario, as I had done in Anne’s office ten years prior. I didn't sack him. I immediately recounted my story of when I had caused a major outage, “Speaking from experience, we all make mistakes but it’s how we deal with them that is most important”. Where have I heard that before! I told him that I was impressed by his honesty and accountability as these were values I respected and were critical to helping take the organisation forward. I could see the relief in his face.
It was my time to pay it forward.